‘I Can’t Meditate’
You’ve tried it before… You sit on the cushion, and you say that you’re gonna meditate. A few minutes pass and nothing really happens. You’re still awash in your thoughts. You feel no bliss or calm. You’ve determined this whole meditation game is a scam. Maybe monks in Tibet can meditate, but not ME.
Does all of this sound at all familiar? Well fret not faithful yogis, mediation doesn’t have to feel like banging your head into the wall or sitting in endless lines of traffic. Meditation happens to be easy to learn, and works can work wonders for both Buddhist monks and busy-minded folk alike!
Why Your Meditation Feels Like Pulling Teeth
After almost a decade of practice and working with students, I’ve come to the conclusion that 99% of meditation frustrations come down to one thing - The modern mind is deeply conditioned towards perpetually completing tasks and digesting information. Think about it. All day we are going from one thing to the next. At work we complete endless lists of to-dos. And when we finally finish we scroll through an endless array of articles on Facebook or binge watch TV shows. It’s total sensory bombardment during all of our waking hours.
So with that in mind, it’s easy to see how removing any stimulus and being told to ‘just simply sit’ is tantamount to death. We fear death, we fear the void, we fear silence; and thus the frustration pervades.
Knowing this, the solution to ‘hacking’ our meditation practice is actually quite obvious - Give the mind something to do!! While there are a few techniques that work well for this, today I will focus on this simplest and most common one: Mindfulness of the Breath.
Imagine your awareness as the gates to a city. Normally the gates are wide open and absolutely anything - thoughts, sounds, aches, etc. - gets let in with no filter. There is nobody standing watch, so we are bombarded by an endless array of sensations - sights, sounds, thoughts. Since anything and everything comes in we are left with the archetypal ‘monkey mind.’ With so many things to choose from, we end up bouncing from one thing to the next, like a monkey swinging through the trees.
When we practice mindfulness we hire a guard for our gate; we decide to take charge of what we allow into our mind. In this case, we will make it our mission to let in only one thing: awareness of the breath. Like a diligent gatekeeper we keep watch over our mental gate. Thoughts will come, sounds will come - of course all of our normal sensory experience doesn’t just stop. But rather than allowing ourselves to be swept away by this flood of sensation, instead we notice when this is happens and we let it go. We immediately return our mind back to the breath. We may be drawn away 1000 times in a single sitting, but like the patient guard at the city gates we turn away any intruders and only allow in the breath.
Step By Step Guide
- Find any comfortable posture and close the eyes. There is no ideal sitting position. Use a chair, cushion, or any other props that help the body to feel relaxed.
- Take a few moments to set your intention. Recall the image of the Gatekeeper. For the duration of your sit we are attempting to only notice the breath.
- As you settle in, begin to observe the breath at the tip of the nostrils. This is not just a mindless anchor, actually notice all of the subtle sensations. It can also help to turn the gaze down the tip of the nose (with eyes still closed).
- If thoughts arise, notice them, let them go, and return to the breath. If other sensations arise, notice them, let them go, and return to the breath. No matter what happens, keep returning to the breath again and again and again. Remember the gatekeeper!
- If the mind is very active, it can be helpful to count the breaths. A good method is to count up to 5 and then back down again. If at any point the mind wanders off, go back to 1 and start over again. (Brian McKnight would be proud…) Be careful not to turn the mind off and just idly count. We are trying to keep the mind focused and sharp!
- As your concentration builds, you will become even more absorbed with the breath. Notice how each breath is completely unique. Notice the pleasant quality of simply breathing. Maintain a laser-like focus just at the tip of the nostrils.
- Continue to relax and calm the mind. Over time, the intention is to completely release the analytical mind and become deeply still. This practice is all about letting go and basking in the pleasantness of concentration.
We All Have Obstacles Sometimes
Of course we won’t be perfect, especially in the beginning. Sometimes our gatekeeper will get distracted, sometimes things will get through despite out best intentions. This is okay! While this method is relatively simple, it certainly isn’t easy to master. It’s real power comes from the factor of momentum. Each time we return to the breath we strengthen that connection. The next time we return to the breath it will be that much easier. Over time this will become second nature, and you may even find yourself anchoring with the breath during your daily life!
Training Your Gatekeeper
Like anything else in the world, perfecting your meditation takes practice. If we are intermittent in our meditation, progress will be slow and we won’t truly receive all of the benefits that it can offer. That is why if you take only one thing away from this whole article it would be:
Practice each and every day, even if only for a few minutes!
This all comes back to the factor of momentum. Even if you are able to do a longer sit - say 45 minutes - but you only do it once a week, that means that six out of seven days during that week your are not training your mind at all. It would be far more beneficial to take that same 45 minutes and split it up to every day of the week (only about 7 minutes a day). Of course, there are some benefits to longer sitting times, but let’s save that for another post…
My Challenge To You
And so I’d like to leave you with a challenge. Can you get started sitting each and every day for at least five minutes? I know it doesn’t seem like much, but over the course of a week that adds up to 35 minutes, or 150 minutes per month. But what’s more important is that you’ll be developing the habit of consistent daily practice! And that is the stepping stone towards truly integrating meditation into you life.
Be sure to post how the challenge goes for you in the comments down below.